Learning for Careers
reviewed by Chris Zirkle - December 14, 2018
Learning for Careers is a must-read for anyone interested in ensuring young people are equipped with information about career options in high school and post-graduation. The book provides hard data as to why having this information is important as well as practical suggestions and guidance for how to make it available. While relatively short (eight chapters and 167 pages), the book provides an in-depth look at the issues related to learning for a career while providing to-the-point examples of successful strategies. Researchers and practitioners should find the book equally useful in their respective roles.
The books chapters build upon each other, beginning with a history lesson of sorts, reminding readers how we arrived at our present situation. The purpose of high school is pondered in the initial chapter, and focused on the current education reform era, which the authors believe began in the early 1980s with the release of A Nation at Risk. That report pointed out the flaws of our education system. One other report analyzed in the chapter is the W. T. Grant Foundations The Forgotten Half, which highlighted the plight of the sizable number of 18-to-24-year-olds not in school and without the skills to make a successful entry into the workplace. This report was largely ignored until the mid-1990s, when legislators appropriated funds for the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in an effort to bring schools and employers closer together. The short-lived legislation did not have a significant impact on the problem of out-of-school, out-of-work young people, leading to what may be the basis for the book itself: a renewed focus on career and technical (formerly vocational) education (CTE) as an alternative to the college-for-all attitude that has pervaded U.S. society for the past three decades.
Chapter Two discusses the origins of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, another piece of the foundation for the book. The Networks examination of the work of other countries in career and technical education is described in detail. This work led to the development of grades nine to 14 pathways for students, designed to dovetail into existing state CTE structures. Also discussed in the chapter are the characteristics of early college high schools, linked learning (better connections between secondary and postsecondary education), and the role of community colleges. The chapter ends with a framework for the pathway to prosperity for all students.
The third chapter is the most lengthy and is aptly called How it Looks On the Ground. The Networks analysis in the previous chapter identified three key characteristics for successful pathways programs: providing knowledge about careers, appropriate preparation, and real-life work experiences while enrolled in a CTE program. How these key aspects play out in different states is described in the chapter as the authors provide examples of various curricular initiatives from Minnesota, Tennessee, and Delaware. Examples from three other regions (central Ohio, Marlborough, Massachusetts, and Central Valley, California) provide additional insights.
Chapter Four provides yet another foundational key: why work matters in the lives of young people. Unfortunately, sobering statistics are provided detailing the lack of employment opportunities for youth, especially for minorities. Adding to this is the distressing lack of employment opportunities that might lead to a successful career. Instead, a high percentage of young people are stuck in low-wage jobs. The authors focus on this lack of opportunity, then lead into a discussion of youth development and how a challenging job can promote the transition to adulthood and continued opportunity through the years. The chapter finishes with a discussion of how appropriate work experiences in a students early years can lead to the development of social capital, thus (at least partially) mitigating social class differences.
The fifth chapter discusses two Achilles heels of the U.S. educational system: the poor way in which we provide career awareness and exposure activities and the lack of work-based learning opportunities for many students. A helpful table defining career awareness, exploration, preparation, and training is provided, with examples illustrating each level of the work-based learning continuum. Each of these are further illustrated by a program showcase highlighting how each level looks inside an educational entity. The chapter closes with a case study outlining how a fully operational nine to 14 pathway system might look in real life.
Chapter Six discusses a key component in any pathway model: the involvement of employers. Considerable discussion is devoted to the differences between the U.S. and other countries in this regard. One key insight is the recognition that U.S. employers have historically not invested in the education and training of young people, believing this to be the responsibility of the respective educational institutions. In addition, the authors list other significant barriers to the employment of young people, including legal liabilities, labor laws, and safety concerns. These disconnects have led to distrust and a lack of confidence among employers in our educational institutions. The recent shortages of skilled labor have led employers to reconsider their relationships with schools, and the authors provide suggestions for developing these partnerships as well as examples of how these collaborations are taking place in various places across the country.
Chapter Seven highlights a necessary part of the process, developing policies that support career pathways. The authors categorize these policy activities into four levers: grades nine to 14 pathways, career awareness, exposure and work-based learning, employer engagement, and intermediaries. Examples of policies in each of these levers are provided by the authors through vignettes from various states.
The final chapter, Looking Forward, discusses what activities are needed to move ahead with the goal of providing learning for careers through organized pathways. Key players are identified, including secondary schools and employers. The authors pay special attention to the role of community colleges in the process as the bridge between secondary schools and employers. The chapter also lists many of the challenges still facing the development of seamless pathways, including the need for academic remediation of some students graduating from high school, funding, and specifically for community colleges, the multiplicity of missions for these institutions (open-access admissions, training for careers, articulation with four-year colleges and universities, certificate and customized training programs).
The authors finish their text by reminding themselves that it takes decades for change to occur in large-scale public systems. The book highlights some of the earlier efforts to make these changes that never solved the problems associated with preparing young people for careers (the school-to-work movement, increased academic requirements, high-stakes testing, etc.). In this volume, the career preparation challenge is examined holistically and systematically, and involves a multitude of stakeholders, something that was missing from previous initiatives. Most importantly, the book, while supported by detailed analysis and research, provides numerous practical ideas for the implementation of a system of career pathways, supplemented by examples from across the country. We feel that the concepts and strategies presented by the authors would be beneficial to policymakers, educators, employers, and other stakeholders interested in implementing such a system.